The golden rule your parents and your kindergarten teacher taught you was pretty simple: Do unto others as you'd have others do unto you. Imagine how you'd feel if you were in the other person's shoes. Stand up for yourself, but try not to hurt people's feelings.
In cyberspace, we state this in an even more basic manner: Remember the human.
When you communicate electronically, all you see is a computer screen. You don't have the opportunity to use facial expressions, gestures, and tone of voice to communicate your meaning; words -- lonely written words -- are all you've got. And that goes for your correspondent as well.
When you're holding a conversation online -- whether it's an email exchange or a response to a discussion group posting -- it's easy to misinterpret your correspondent's meaning. And it's frighteningly easy to forget that your correspondent is a person with feelings more or less like your own.
It's ironic, really. Computer networks bring people together who'd otherwise never meet. But the impersonality of the medium changes that meeting to something less -- well, less personal. Humans exchanging email often behave the way some people behind the wheel of a car do: They curse at other drivers, make obscene gestures, and generally behave like savages. Most of them would never act that way at work or at home. But the interposition of the machine seems to make it acceptable.
The message of Netiquette is that it's not acceptable. Yes, use your network connections to express yourself freely, explore strange new worlds, and boldly go where you've never gone before. But remember the Prime Directive of Netiquette: Those are real people out there.
Would you say it to the person's face?
Writer and Macintosh evangelist Guy Kawasaki tells a story about getting email from some fellow he's never met. Online, this fellow tells Guy that he's a bad writer with nothing interesting to say.
Unbelievably rude? Yes, but unfortunately, it happens all the time in cyberspace.
Maybe it's the awesome power of being able to send mail directly to a well-known writer like Guy. Maybe it's the fact that you can't see his face crumple in misery as he reads your cruel words. Whatever the reason, it's incredibly common.
Guy proposes a useful test for anything you're about to post or mail: Ask yourself, "Would I say this to the person's face?" If the answer is no, rewrite and reread. Repeat the process till you feel sure that you'd feel as comfortable saying these words to the live person as you do sending them through cyberspace.
Of course, it's possible that you'd feel great about saying something extremely rude to the person's face. In that case, Netiquette can't help you. Go get a copy of Miss Manners' Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behavior.
Another reason not to be offensive online
When you communicate through cyberspace -- via email or on discussion groups -- your words are written. And chances are they're stored somewhere where you have no control over them. In other words, there's a good chance they can come back to haunt you.
Never forget the story of famous email user Oliver North. Ollie, you'll remember, was a great devotee of the White House email system, PROFS. He diligently deleted all incriminating notes he sent or received. What he didn't realize was that, somewhere else in the White House, computer room staff were equally diligently backing up the mainframe where his messages were stored. When he went on trial, all those handy backup tapes were readily available as evidence against him.
You don't have to be engaged in criminal activity to want to be careful. Any message you send could be saved or forwarded by its recipient. You have no control over where it goes.